Find the disrupters — and listen to them: Nancy Schlichting's unconventional leadership advice

Innovation requires the willingness to take risks, the capacity to accept failure, the ability to listen to other people's ideas and, importantly, a bold leader. These are some of the things Nancy Schlichting, president and CEO of Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, details in her book Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me About Reinvention and Diversity.

In today's disruptive business environment, some traditional management methods are no longer effective, and they may even be counterproductive. Unconventional Leadership chronicles unique strategies that have enabled Ms. Schlichting's success as the head of Detroit's biggest health system: focusing on people, cultivating a culture of innovation and recognizing diversity is a key to growth. Her book offers insight into her unique leadership paradigm designed to motivate, inspire encourage new modes of thinking and problem solving.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter Four of Unconventional Leadership, "Find the Disrupters in Your Organization — and Listen to Them."

Excerpted with permission from Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me About Reinvention and Diversity by Nancy M. Schlichting (Bibliomotion, 2015)

"Our invariable reply to 'It can't be done' is 'Go do it.'" — Henry Ford

Most people have an image in their mind about what a hospital should look like. It's the iconic snapshot of a large, sterile institution with white walls and large, paneled elevators that go up into the sky. The gift shop in the lobby sells balloons, flowers, candy, magazines, pajamas and a few gift items. The adjacent cafeteria serves pizza, burgers, soup and sandwiches, and there's a separate coffee shop or newspaper stand with additional drinks and menu items. End of story. People aren't searching out hospitals for their world-class cuisine or shopping — they come for medical care and they come to get well. Right?

It's interesting to see how people react when you disrupt their core beliefs about something, like a hospital, that is seen as a public resource. Some people roll with it, while others are less accepting. Every person has a different tolerance for change, and mine happens to be fairly high, so I have always been a proponent of taking risks on innovation.

In 2009, we opened the system's first new hospital since 1915. We had acquired hospitals previously, but this one, in West Bloomfield, Michigan, was the only one we conceived and built from the foundation up. Deciding to build the hospital was an historic moment for us, and I saw it as an opportunity to create the hospital of the future. Still, it was a major undertaking at a time when many organizations were retrenching.

At that time, Michigan had the highest unemployment rate of any state in the U.S. and the entire nation was reeling from the great recession and the subprime mortgage crisis that preceded it. As for Detroit, all of the economic indicators were negative: home prices were declining and poverty was rising. For me, the situation brought to mind the state of Henry Ford Hospital several years earlier, before we turned the tide. Employee morale had become a problem and the building looked like it was falling down around us. But once we were able to invest in infrastructure and attend to aesthetics and services at the hospital, moods began to improve — and so did our performance. The other thing that lifted us back up was the groundbreaking robotic surgery techniques at the Vattikuti Urology Institute. As mentioned, they altered our DNA: Suddenly we were at the cutting edge, with state-of-the-art credibility to uphold.

Fast-forward a few years to our blueprints for West Bloomfield. Given the market and our own budget constraints, it might have been easier (and some would say wiser) to build a traditional hospital without high-end amenities. Families everywhere were doing more with less, the thinking went, and we should do the same. That was one school of thought — but it didn't happen that way, thanks in large part to the man I hired to run the new hospital. Instead, we built a "health and wellness center" that was equipped with eateries that offered gourmet cuisine, a beautiful day spa, a greenhouse and indoor farmer's market, a demonstration kitchen and a retail atrium filled with live plants and curved paths edged in cobblestone.

It was a hospital that had the look and feel of a luxury hotel, right down to the trendy retailers, tea sommelier and concierge. Young couples have had their wedding receptions at this hospital, that's how beautiful it is.

The visionary disruptor who was my partner in creating the $360 million facility was Gerard van Grinsven, a longtime Ritz-Carlton executive who had opened twenty properties around the world, served as VP of food and beverage, and led a turnaround of the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan. Gerard knew his way around a five-star hotel, but he had no hospital experience whatsoever. Still, when he met with me for coffee at my home and asked for career advice, I recognized an opportunity. He had a strong vision that coincided with my own and a reputation as an excellent leader. I hired him on the spot and decided that he could fill the high-stakes position as CEO of our new hospital. It was an unorthodox choice and there was some apprehension internally at HFHS. The wider industry, as well, was alight with disdain. Yet, based on something Gerard had once said, I believed that Henry Ford would approve of my choice of leaders. Ford's attitude was this: "It is not easy to get away from tradition. That is why all our new operations are always directed by men who have had no previous knowledge of the subject and therefore have not had a chance to get on really familiar terms with the impossible." Thanks to van Grinsven's distinctive background, he was able to help us escape from tradition. Together, with other leaders at the organization, we changed minds and forged ahead.

Although complicated to execute and initially somewhat unpopular externally, the maneuver was extremely innovative — and in the end the project managed to succeed beyond anyone's expectations. It turns out that people quite like coming to a place that doesn't remind them of a hospital, and will even change their doctor to be able to do so!

This type of breakthrough thinking, from Gerard and many others, is the reason I got into healthcare initially. My memories of hospitals growing up were grim, and I knew we could make the experience far better and perhaps set a new standard for the industry — not only in terms of aesthetics but also standard of care. Gerard would argue, and I concur, that West Bloomfield represents a way of rethinking the role of a hospital. In positioning ourselves as a community center for well-being, we created a destination that helps people lead healthier lives.

West Bloomfield was a game changer for us, and it was one of the things that opened the floodgates. A century or more after Henry Ford revolutionized auto manufacturing, we at HFHS have leveraged his legacy to introduce new ideas and concepts designed to shake up both our own thinking and the world of healthcare. Innovation has always been one of our greatest strengths, dating back to our founder, and we started to wield it more effectively than ever before. When we went through the Baldrige application process we identified what we thought were our core competencies: care coordination, collaboration, and innovation. Innovation has been in our makeup from the beginning, but we needed to nurture it."

Chapter 4 References

i Henry Ford, The Great To-Day and Greater Future (New York, New York: Cosimo, 2006), 66.
ii Henry Ford, The Great To-Day and Greater Future, 66.
iii Bill Taylor, "One Hospital's Radical Prescription for Change," Harvard Business Review, June 2, 2010, https://hbr.org/2010/06/going-radical-one-hospitals-p/. Access date: August 3, 2105

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